Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wrestling with God

In thanksgiving for the life, ministry, and friendship of the Rev. Peg Beissert (1914-2013), a widow who wrestled with “the powers that be” to bring justice to us all.

This past Sunday I spoke to MCC Winston-Salem about the lectionary readings for the day: the Genesis passage of Jacob wrestling with God and Jesus’ parable of the widow wrestling with the unjust judge, wrestling with “the powers that be.” I’ve decided to share a few of those thoughts with you…

As a young boy, I have a fond memory wrestling with my dad. It was a friendly competition. I felt his strength but it inflicted no pain, and we were usually smiling through the whole wrestling match. It seemed a part of my brother’s and my rite of passage into manhood, but it also brought us close to him, and the physical intimacy felt good.

Slightly older, I wrestled with my boyhood friend from church, again in a friendly way—my idea. But I had to move into another room quickly because I was aroused and didn’t want him to see. In high school, though I wanted to take a weightlifting class, I didn’t, because it required wrestling, and I was afraid my secret would come out in such close proximity to another teenage boy.

James B. Nelson is one of the pioneer writers in body theology, a theology that recognizes the body as a place where we may meet the holy, where we may encounter God. There are dozens and dozens of body theologians now, many of them women, from racial minorities, or LGBT. But Professor Nelson is a straight, white male.

Nelson writes that during one service of Holy Communion, he rose to go forward to receive the consecrated bread and wine and realized to his consternation that he was aroused. He uses this involuntary response to illustrate the continuity of body and spirit, sexuality and spirituality. After all, eros, what I have nicknamed “the urge to merge,” is the fuel that feeds both our sexual and spiritual encounters, both lovemaking and prayermaking—we want to be one with another, whether with a partner or with God. We want to hold on until they bless us.

In one of the workshops I led as part of an LGBTQ spirituality event during Winston-Salem’s Pride weekend, I told the story (which has appeared in several of my books) of a woman who once attended a “church and homosexuality” workshop I led years ago. She had no religious background, she explained, but in her lovemaking with her partner she had discovered a spiritual realm she had never before experienced. “Since spirituality has to do with God,” she said, “I came here to find out about God.”

Just as I feared wrestling with my boyhood friend and teenage gym mates for fear of getting aroused and my secret homosexuality known, many of us fear wrestling with God as well as “the powers that be” because of the passions it arouses in us and the intimacy involved. But God who wrestled mud into human flesh in our creation and wrestled into human flesh in Jesus the Word made flesh badly, passionately, wants to wrestle with us, much like my father did, not to hurt or intimidate or frighten us, but to provide a safe intimacy and rite of passage for our struggle into spiritual maturity, becoming compassionate as our God in heaven is compassionate.

In the children’s sermon I tried to convey that The Bible is full of stories of people who wrestled with God, that church is full of people who wrestle with one another to form spiritual community, and that prayer may serve as a kind of wrestling venue.

Instead of beginning “Let us pray…” perhaps we could say, in the famous words of one wrestling announcer, “Let’s get ready to rummm-bllllle…!”

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  1. Chris, lost track of you - I think back to 1978 often - so glad to see you causing trouble as usual.
    Phyllis Hart

    1. Phyllis, great to hear from you! You still in Southern California? Please go to my website for my e-mail and drop me a note if you have the time: